Confucianism and Mental Health

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As a distinct and important philosophical thought in Chinese culture, Confucianism remains at the core of China’s traditions and beliefs. From a mental health perspective, traditional thought provides a unique understanding on the nature of human beings, allowing psychotherapists and mental health practitioners to utilize cultural traditions in developing a person’s sense of Self, and healing emotional problems.

Previous studies in Confucian culture have mainly focused on Confucianism in organisational harmony and job performance. For instance, Prof. Patrick Low and Sik-Liong Ang (2013) highlighted how a Confucian emphasis on loyalty, responsibility, and individual moral cultivation could lead to harmonious relationships and successful business management. Hu, Liao, and Xu (2012) also investigated 426 company employees and found that Confucian thinking positively correlated with organizational harmony and employee performance. However, far less attention has been paid to Confucianism and cultural psychology, and in particular mental health.

As a result, a recent study in cross-cultural psychology provides an interesting perspective on the way that Confucianism can be used to improve the practice of psychotherapy. Following previous work by Yan (2008), who stated that Confucian concepts such as Ren-ai (仁爱) or ‘kindheartedness’ is an essential component in developing therapist-patient relationships based on cooperation and care, Yang et al. (2016) argue that Zhong-Yong thinking (中庸) can encourage people to regulate mental distress and maintain subjective well-being.

In the Doctrine of the Mean, which is the title of one of the four books of Confucian philosophy, as well as being a doctrine, it is stated that life should be about experiencing emotion without extremity, “when (emotions) are expressed, manifested in the middle with regulation, they are harmonious”. In that case, regulating emotions and processing information holistically represents the Confucian ideal of perfecting relationships and activities in human life.

Yang et al.’s (2016) study claims that therapists who think holistically and consider the interconnectedness of the mind, body, and spirit could help patients restructure their cognition and behaviour, without ignoring their physical well-being and emotional distress. Accepting the coexistence of positive and negative emotions could also help find flexible behavioural responses to distressing situations, giving patients more self-control to cope with real-life challenges.

While the study was only conducted on a Chinese undergraduate students’ sample and did not investigate the potential negative impact of Zhong-Yong thinking, the findings show that cultural heritage has the potential to play an important role in psychotherapy and mental health, encouraging people to maintain harmony and connection in their day to day lives.

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